Maritime Heritage of Grand Haven, MI

United States Coast Guard

United States Life Saving ServiceUS Life Saving Service Logo

On February 1, 1871, an Act of Congress established the United States Life Saving Service as an agency of the U.S. Treasury Department. It linked together several volunteer lifesaving groups along the nation’s waterways. These men worked to save the lives of those whose vessels were in peril. This included the first crew of volunteers Grand Haven, organized by Captain William Loutit, and commanded by Captain Richard Connell. Capt. Loutit also served as the first Superintendent for Michigan’s 12 stations. They began their official work May 1, 1877.

Grand Haven originally held the title of the Eleventh Life Saving District, but switched to the Tenth Life Saving District in 1915. They built the first station in the late 1870’s on the north side of the channel. The service equipped it with a six-ton lifeboat, a self-bailer (specialized drain for boats), and a surf boat (a boat designed to enter the water in severe waves). It ran under the watch of a Captain or a Keeper and a crew of six to eight men. In addition, on August 5, 1889, the U.S. Life Saving service issued a regulation for dark-blue uniforms. Eventually, in 1989, the Coast Guard moved into a building on the south side of the channel.

Lifesaving station First lifesaving station in Grand Haven (1883)

Revenue Cutter Service to Coast Guard

On August 4, 1790, Congress formed the Revenue Cutter Service as an agency of the U.S. Treasury. The foundation came from the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, who recognized the need for a police fleet to regulate shippers and merchants. On January 28, 1915, an Act of Congress combined the Revenue Cutter Service and the United States Life Saving Service to establish the United States Coast Guard.

Created in 1915, the U.S. Coast Guard existed as a combination of two maritime forces under the U.S. Treasury. In 1939, it also included the Lighthouse Service. In 1942, it took to managing the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation. With so many different services, the Coast Guard was reassigned to the Department of Transportation in peacetimes but fell under the jurisdiction of the Navy during wartimes.

rowing boat in big waves It took great strength and endurance to row through the heavy waves.

Vessels of the Grand Haven Channel

Did you know that a vessel refers to anything that floats and can be moved through the water? Many people consider ships to be large vessels, and boats to be small vessels, although nowadays, people often use the terms interchangeably. Many different vessels have sailed through the Grand Haven channel and into the Grand Haven harbor. One of the most famous ships was the Escanaba.

The Escanaba

The first Coast Guard cutter stationed at Grand Haven was the Escanaba who arrived in December 9, 1932. Originally a cutter was a sailboat that had two or more sails in the front and built for speed. In the 1700’s, the Great Britain’s Royal Customs Service used the term “cutter” for any vessel under their authority. When Congress established the (United States) Revenue Cutter Service in 1970, they also called their vessels cutter. Now all vessels used by the Coast Guard are called cutters (

The Escanaba The Escanaba being refitted for war duty at Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company in Wisconsin.

When World War II started, the  Coast guard redesigned the Escanaba for war. Unfortunately, the Escanaba sank after an explosion on June 13, 1943, and only two of the 101 crew members survived. To commemorate the beloved ship and the lives of the crew members lost, the community raised over $1 million for the construction of the Escanaba II. In Escanaba (Memorial) Park there stands a fully rigged mast of the cutter to honor them and preserve their memory.

Ships and Boats

While are many Coast Guard cutters that sailed and continue to sail through the Grand Haven channel, there are many more types of vessels on the Grand Haven waters. For example, passenger and cargo ships, sailboats and speedboats, steamers and schooners are just some of the watercraft to have sailed to Grand Haven harbor. One such vessel is the car ferry Grand Haven at 306 feet long, and it carried vehicles, passengers, and freight cars in the early 1900’s. In the early to mid-1900’s, it was popular for ferryboats to journey from one side of Lake Michigan to the other, particularly to and from Milwaukee.

Crew of Grand Haven ferry Officers of the car ferry Grand Haven in the 1920’s.

Grand Haven Lakefront

The Lighthouse and Pier

The U.S. government constructed Grand Haven’s first federal lighthouse in 1839. A winter storm severely damaged the structure on December 17, 1852. Completed in 1855, a new sturdy stone lighthouse replaced it and included a huge powerful light that boats could observe for 18 miles offshore. Nehemiah Merritt acted as the very first lighthouse keeper, while Captain Jedidiah Gray acted as the first lighthouse keeper for the new construction. No longer in use, the city had it torn down in 1910.

The current “light house” that rests at the end of the south pier was built in 1905, using the $4000 lens taken from the second lighthouse. It replaced the “beacon light” added to the pier in 1881. The red building is a fog signal building constructed 1875 and continuously moved to the end of the pier as it grew longer and longer. The south pier was finished in 1893 and is now nearly 1,500 feet long!

The south pier began as an extension of the wood and concrete revetments used to form the channel. Revetments are slanted structures used to absorb the energy of incoming water, as well as hold back the sand. Therefore helping to create a more reliable channel for boats.  The pier and catwalk were mainly assembled with wood,  though both were eventually replaced with sturdier materials. In 1987, the Save the Catwalk Committee raised the funds to stop the demolition of the unused catwalk, reconstruct it for safety, and install lights. Replicas of the lights used on the Escanaba, they switched on for the first time on November 25, 1988.

lights on the catwalk The lights atop the catwalk are replicas of the fondly remembered Coast Guard cutter, the Escanaba.

Grand Haven Beaches

On December 23, 1920, the State of Michigan bought over 22 acres of property for a state park from the City of Grand Haven for only a dollar. Then, in 1921 they laid oval-shaped concrete strip for easier parking. This is where the Grand Haven State Park gets its nickname “The Oval”. Grand Haven State Park lies between the south pier and the Grand Haven City Beach. Many of the concessions added to the beach were built in the 1920’s to the 1940’s.

life guard at beach Lifeguard on duty at Grand Haven State Park in the 1960’s.

From an article in the Grand Haven Tribune, dated July 15, 1922:
“Grand Haven has good reason to be proud of the new State Park. On the shore of Lake Michigan just north of highland Park, the combined efforts of the city of Grand Haven and the state of Michigan have created one of the most attractive recreational spots to be found along the entire western shore-line of the state.”

Coast Guard Festival

In 1924, the 10th Coast Guard Headquarters planned a picnic for all district personnel. Unfortunately, due to a rainstorm, the picnic was postponed until 1925. After that it occurred annually (excepting the years 1942 to 1945 due to World War II, and in 2020 due to COVID-19). The local Coast Guard held a small observance on those years. This annual picnic evolved into the Coast Guard Festival.

When Grand Haven hosted their Centennial Celebration in 1934, they included the first community-sponsored Coast Guard picnic. In 1937, the Junior Chamber of Commerce added the Water Festival for three days that had competitive races, drills, water demonstrations, and other activities. The Coast Guard Festival Queen tradition originated from the queen chosen for the 1934 Centennial Celebration. Jessie Olsen was the first Festival Queen in 1939.

Because the original Coast Guard, the Revenue Cutter Service, was established on August 4, the community chose that date for their first celebration. Tradition continued, and so now the Coast Guard Festival occurs around August 4. As the decades passed, the celebration grew. By the 1960’s, the carnival had become another portion of the Coast Guard Festival. With such strong ties to the Coast Guard, Grand Haven was named Coast Guard City, U.S.A. on November 13, 1998.

coast guard parade Coast Guard marching down Washington Street in the 1943 Centennial Celebration parade.



Information provided by Images of America: Maritime Grand Haven – Coast Guard City USA by Wallace K. Ewing, Ph.D., and David H. Seibold, D.D.S., for the Tri-Cities Historical Museum, Destination: The Haven by Wallace K. Ewing, Ph.D., Grand Haven – In the Path of Destiny: A History of Grand Haven, Spring Lake, Ferrysburg and Adjoining Townships by David H. Siebold, D.D.S., and by the Northwest Ottawa County Encyclopedia of History – Volume II: Buildings and Sites, Businesses and Industries, Topics, and Bibliography by Wallace K. Ewing, Ph.D..

Images provided by Images of America: Maritime Grand Haven – Coast Guard City USA by Wallace K. Ewing, Ph.D., and David H. Seibold, D.D.S., for the Tri-Cities Historical Museum.

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